“I obviously don’t believe in heaven … but I can give you a tour of hell.”
After the death of his wife, Dr. Humberto Fuentes (Federico Luppi) begins to reflect on one of the more satisfying aspects to his career–a period when he trained 7 young doctors. These doctors were sent out into rural regions of this unnamed Latin American country to provide medical care to the indigenous people. Dr Fuentes considers his role in the training of the young doctors his “legacy” but one day in the market he catches sight of one of the young doctors who is now involved in black market activity. Fuentes questions his former student who tells him, “you are the most learned man I’ve met, but also the most ignorant.”
This unexpected encounter troubles Fuentes, and he mentions the idea of searching for his former students to one of his patients–a military officer–and he’s warned not to go due to political trouble with guerrillas. But when Fuentes questions this, the officer ridicules any notion of skirmishes or atrocities noting that any stories Fuentes may have heard are just rumours–after all, “the common people love drama.” In spite of these conflicting warnings, Fuentes leaves his comfortable life behind and begins a literal and figurative journey towards the truth.
Everywhere he goes, Fuentes hears of ‘the men with guns’–the men who bring death and violence in their wake. Fuentes encounters various bands of people who are named for what they produce–the Salt People, the Banana People, the Gum People, the Coffee People, and they all suffer from displacement and starvation. As Fuentes travels farther from the city into the rural areas, he picks up several traveling companions–a former priest (Damian Alcazar), an army deserter (Damian Delgado), and an orphan (Dan Rivera Gonzales). The priest has lost his religious faith, the deserter is haunted by memories of his actions, and the orphan was kept as a mascot in an abandoned school that was used as a torture centre. It is through the stories of these fellow travelers that Fuentes is able to finally piece together his former students’ fate.
Fuentes also meets two intrepid and annoying American tourists, and at first when they ask Fuentes about atrocities, he repeats the phrase “the common people love drama.” Yet by the end of the film, Fuentes now carries the terrible burden of his new knowledge, while the Americans–symbolically remain in a sheath of ignorance–blissfully unaware of the murder, violence, genocide and torture that surround them. Men With Guns addresses several themes–complicity, violence, and guilt in a brutal militaristic system that crushes those it can no longer exploit. John Sayles is an amazing director, and of all his films, Men With Guns is his most powerful and most painful.